Reversing Deficit Discourses

Around this time of year, I tend to do different talks around the university for faculty, staff or teaching assistants about dealing with linguistically-diverse classes in terms of teaching and learning.

I’ll often begin these sessions by talking about what faculty, staff or TAs can do to help avoid the deficit discourses around international students and ESL/EAL students at our universities. It’s a matter of framing: international students are often characterized as lacking language or cultural skills, but I encourage folks to remember that international students are actually in the process of adding language varieties and cultural know-how to their repertoire.

Then I bring out my most cited of Bourdieu quotes–“academic language […] is no one’s mother tongue” (Bourdieu et al., 1994, p. 8)”–and remind everyone that all students are in the process of acquiring academic and English and the language of their discipline. Depending on their linguistic background, some students from non-English-speaking backgrounds just have a bit farther to travel than those raised and educated using English to add Canadian Academic English to their repertoire of languages.

None of this is particularly revolutionary, but it can be a bit of a reframing of things for folks who don’t spend all day thinking about language and working with people developing their English language proficiency. The monoglot ideology (Silverstein, 1996) is really prevalent in of English Canada: in general, English Canadians are really not very successful language learners, and tend to fall into the “everyone else can speak English so why should I learn anything else?” trap. Even in places with a lot of cultural diversity, a real embracing of linguistic diversity, valuing multi/plurilingualism, on behalf of the whole population –including monolingual English speakers, and not just those who happen to speak a non-English heritage language at home–doesn’t necessarily follow. The lack of linguistic diversity on the CBC is one example of this. 

 

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & Martin, M. D. S. (1994). Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power (1 edition). Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Silverstein M. (1996). Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In D. Brenneis & R. Macaulay (eds.), The matrix of language: Contemporary linguistic anthropology, 284–306. Boulder, CO : Westview Press.

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IPA for All

From Chat with the Clouds. Please add ESL/EAL/EAP textbooks to this list: Us: what do we want? Also us: mainstream IPA education Us: when do we want it? Also us: during high school so we can stop using those crappy pronunciation “guides” in dictionaries, textbooks, music and international studies all together: and use a real […]

They Won’t Know Unless You Tell Them

One of my least favourite genres of article is the Kids these days…!  or Back in my day, we…. article focusing specifically on university students. At a very regular frequency, these articles appear in the mainstream press and in publications focusing on academia alike. They invariably consist of a lot of hang-wringing because unlike the (usually Baby Boomer-age) authors of these articles, today’s university students are brainwashed capitalist zombies addicted to social media, who can’t spell or use grammar correctly, and are coddled snowflakes who can’t handle the real world without a trigger warning.

That’s why I loved this article, What First Years Might Not Know and What To Do About It. It’s short blog post listing academic behaviours–emailing, note-taking, interacting with professors–that many first-years lack upon arriving at university simply because they’ve never learned them. The post reminds faculty and staff that they may have to explicitly teach these behaviours. Your first-year students don’t know how to write a proper email? Rather than bemoan that this indicates that the decline of Western civilization, well, just teach them how to do it and get on with it.

And if students are not exposed to these academic behaviours in North American high schools and have to be taught, then what about students who are arriving to a completely new academic culture when they arrive at a Canadian university from another country? For me, this further underlines the need for academic expectations and behaviours to be made explicit and specifically taught to domestic and international students alike. Academic English is no one’s mother tongue, and similarly, no one is born knowing that you shouldn’t use emojis in an email to your prof. If you want someone to act in a certain way, well, then show and tell them what you want; otherwise, how are they supposed to know?

Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries

There comes a time in every EAP course, usually at the beginning, when you have to have THE TALK with your students–that awkward moment when you address the elephant in the room.

“That crap dictionary/translator you rely heavily upon is making you sound dumb.”

While a crappy bilingual dictionary or online translator can be sufficient for some beginning students, those who have reached intermediate level, and especially those heading into EAP, may be hindered by simplistic or inaccurate dictionaries.

And while dictionary skills are on the curriculum for some EAP courses, they sometimes still focus on paper dictionaries and/or don’t talk about dictionary choice and the limitations of a lot of the translation websites and apps many of our students end up using out of convenience. Many of our students don’t realize that the translator they use like a dictionary is probably machine-driven. For their routine lookups of words they’d be better off with dictionaries compiled by humans.

Below is a handout I prepared for my colleagues with some of my faves. Share yours with me in the comments (especially apps for iOS).

 


TEACHERS FRIENDS DON’T LET STUDENTS FRIENDS USE BAD DICTIONARIES

Encourage students to not just use Google or whatever random dictionary website/app they come across, but to choose a quality dictionary site or app that is associated with a published dictionary brand. This means it should be compiled by lexicographers (and not via an algorithm/crowd-sourcing).

Some recommendations:

English-English Dictionaries Online (Web-based)

Personal Fave: Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary

  • Learner-appropriate level, with simple definitions
  • Usage notes, collocations, etc.
  • Tabs on top of homepage have wordlists, and words groups by topic
  • Free online via web; paid app (see below)

Also:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Collins: English Dictionary, Thesaurus

 

Bilingual dictionaries Online (Free, web-based)

Many students use Google translate to translate single words. That tool is a powerful one, but I don’t find it very accurate for  single words. It mainly works based on algorithms and crowd-sourcing, and depends heavily on context, so it’s not as accurate as a “real” dictionary, especially for single words.

Collins Chinese , French, German, Italian, Spanish, , Hindi

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On collinsdictionary.com you can select the language pairing you want to the left of the search bar. 

Oxford Dictionaries Arabic (other languages are available, but by subscription only)

Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Indonesian, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Catalan, Japanese, Malaysian, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese

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Click on the box near the search button on dictionary.cambridge.com to access all the bilingual and semi-bilingual dictionaries.

 

Apps

A lot of the good dictionaries and learner’s dictionaries are only available as paid apps. Despite pointing out to your students that $30 for an app they may use every day of their academic career is a good investment, they may balk at paying for one.

Search for the following in the iTunes/Android app stores:

Paid English-English Dictionary Apps:

Both platforms (iOS and Android):

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

 

Free English-English Dictionary apps

Android:

  • Oxford Dictionary of English: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular Oxford Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular M-W dictionary
  • Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus

Apple iOS:

Bilingual Dictionary Apps: Paid/Free/Free trial

Android:

  • Oxford dictionaries: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian Greek, Thai, (all free)
  • Collins dictionaries: Korean (free trial, ~$10), Arabic (free trial, ~$10), Japanese, German, Norwegian

Apple iOS:

  • Oxford Dictionaries: French, Spanish, German, Italian Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek
  • Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese (paid)

 

 

NYT Writing Prompts

Capture I recently came across the New York Time’s list of 401 prompts for argumentative writing. This would come in handy in many an EAP classroom, where opinion or argumentative essays in various forms are taught at most levels, really. The topics and questions are such that most of them could form the prompt for an essay being written purely from a student’s own background knowledge, experience and opinions, or for a research essay drawing on external sources of information.

There is also a list of prompts for personal or narrative writing, along with a lesson called “From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’, Writing Personal Essays with Help from the New York Times”. It’s true that those two particular sections/columns in the NYT are particularly interesting and engaging; not to mention that there’s an archive with thousands of relatively short, easy-to-engage-with texts that could be mined for any number of uses in a writing class.

Also fun to use would be the daily picture prompt. This could be especially flexible for use with lower levels, or as a prompt for genres other than the essay, such as creative writing.

Video: How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada

CaptureI recently came across a video by CBC News called How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada, featuring Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, that I think would be a great classroom resource for those teaching in Canada. It’s language-focused, explaining the levels of specificity of different terms related to indigenous peoples in Canada and some aspects of use. It’s also extremely clear, concise and explanatory, which ideal for those who might not have extensive background knowledge on indigenous peoples in Canada–such as newcomers to Canada or many Canadians of a white settler background whose schooling in this area may be lacking.

I’ve had several students over the years who have come to the classroom without the nuanced and complete linguistic repertoire needed to talk about complex and historically-rooted social issues such as identity, privilege, racism or colonialism. In some cases it seems apparent that they’ve only been exposed to or learned words and terms that reflect the systemic racism present in pop culture and mainstream society, but lack knowledge of the heavy social and historical baggage and power some of those words carry.

I consider it part of my duty as a language teacher to first get myself informed as to the more appropriate and socially just linguistic choices to make when talking about complex issues (and keep myself informed as society and language, evolve and change), and then to pass that knowledge on to my students.

BC TEAL is putting on a webinar entitled An Indigenous Strategy for the ESL Classroomwhich seems like it could be one example of initiatives being taken towards the reconciliation of the ESL/EAL world and the indigenous communities in Canada; a relationship which has been troubled in the past by things such as denials of racism in ELT coursebooks.

I would love it if you could share in the comments any other people, groups or institutions working on Indigenous-ELT reconciliation in Canada.

Teaching Idea: Phoneme Prevalence Chart

Capture

 I came across this fascinating chart on Twitter a few days ago of the prevalence of phonemes amongst the world’s languages. Though it could come off as intimidating for someone who doesn’t know IPA, I think that it could be interesting to draw upon in the classroom. It could spark conversation around the fact that some sounds that are common and fundamental in English might actually be rare cross-linguistically, and therefore difficult for some.  It could be a confidence booster for someone who is struggling with a certain sound to know that there is a reason why they find it difficult, and that they’re not the only one.

I think it could also be interesting to get students to think of the phonemic inventory of their L1 and think about overlap with English (though as this chart shows phonemic inventory and not phonetic, there could be sounds in English which also appear in students’ L1s which are not phonemes but exist in allophonic distribution). Here is an amazing resource on phonemic inventories of different languages (along with other cultural and linguistic info). Although these resources have been made for speech-language pathologists and audiologists, they could definitely prove handy for an English teacher focusing on pronunciation.

ELF Pronunciation in Brazil

Most of my pronunciation teaching has taken place in inner circle contexts; mainly, Canada. Standard Canadian English is quite present in terms of models of pronunciation and goals for comprehension on behalf of many students in this context, as much of their interaction is with local native speakers.

Soon I’m going to be doing some speaking and pronunciation teaching in Brazil, an expanding circle context that’s new to me, and so I thought I’d do a bit of research on the Lingua Franca Core, Jenkins’ (2000) proposal for the core set of phonological features that are most crucial for intelligibility.

I plan to cross reference list of ELF core features with the list of features of  Brazilian Portuguese that tend to be most salient in Brazilians’ learner English and focus on these in the course.

What I’ve come up with so far is the following. This list of summaries of the LF Core features is from this amazing blog, and I’ve added my comments in bold below each of their  summaries.

1. Consonant sounds

‘Dark /l/’ (also written as [ɫ]) is not necessary.  Speakers can substitute ‘clear /l/’ (possibly preceded by a schwa if the /l/ is syllabic, like at the end of ‘bottle’).  

In particular, I plan to focus on the substitution of /w/ for /l/ that often occurs word finally, and try to encourage a clear /l/ in this context.

• /r/ should be pronounced as in General American pronunciation (technically called a “rhotic retroflex approximant” and written as [ɻ].  It should also be pronounced everywhere it occurs in spelling, as in American English.

Brazilian Portuguese (BP) has two ‘r’:  /ʁ/ and /ɾ/, and while the latter does not impede comprehension, substitution of  /ʁ/ for /ɻ/ in most contexts in English, especially word-initially, can really affect comprehension.  I plan to work on raising awareness of the patterns of ‘r’ in BP and trying to get students to work on producing some kind of rhotic something word-initially and in the coda position.

 

2. Consonant clusters

• If learners have trouble producing consonant clusters, it’s usually OK to insert a very short schwa vowel between consonants, providing they don’t then stress this syllable (e.g. ‘product’ could be pronounced more like [pә’rɒdʌkәtә] by Japanese speakers without damaging intelligibility).

• Similarly, learners can add a short schwa at the end of a word ending with a consonant, provided this does not create another word which it might be confused with (e.g. ‘hard’ sounding like ‘harder’).

Speakers of BP often epenthesize schwas into consonant clusters or on the end of words ending in voiced fricatives or affricates such as /dʒ/, etc. I’ll tryt o focus here on making that schwa as short and unstressed as possible. 

3. Vowels

• Length contrasts must be preserved, e.g. ‘pill’ versus ‘peel.  However, the actual quality of vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent (e.g. don’t keep switching between different pronunciations of the vowel in ‘hat’ so sometimes it sounds like RP [hæt] and sometimes it sounds like New Zealand [het]).

• The length of diphthongs must be preserved but, again, the actual quality of the vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent.

• When a vowel occurs before an unvoiced consonant, it should sound slightly shorter than when it occurs before a voiced consonant.  For example, the vowel in ‘right’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘ride’, and the vowel in ‘kit’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘kid’.

• The /ɜː/ vowel, as in ‘girl’ or ‘first’, must be pronounced accurately.

YES to all these. Vowel length is so important and many learners of English are not aware of it. 

4. Word groups and nuclear stress

• The stream of speech should be divided into meaningful tone units (also known as ‘tone groups’, ‘word groups’ or ‘thought groups’).

• Nuclear stress (i.e. which word is stressed within a ‘tone group’) must placed appropriately, especially for contrast/emphasis.  This means the difference in meaning should be clear between, for example, ‘Let’s meet NEXT Saturday’ and ‘Let’s meet next SATURDAY’.

This aspect of pronunciation was the focus of Jane Setter’s great plenary at IATEFL 2017. It’s relatively straightforward to teach and raise awareness about and I plan to do so with this group. 

I have my work cut out for me!

Now, I know that word stress is not part of the LF Core! But I have observed that a tendency of speakers of BT to carry out schwa reduction on syllables that in stress-timed varieties of English are not reduced (in other words, syllables that are stressed or unstressed but not reduced to schwa), and I have seen it cause misunderstandings in interactions with native speakers and non-native speakers. This makes me inclined to bring it up in class.

Any of you ELF enthusiasts out there have more recommendations for me?

 

 

An Ode to Grammar Translation

TR11I admit it—as a language learner I really love certain aspects of the grammar-translation method. I like to learn words, phrases and structures and compare them to those in the languages I already know. Seeing where the gaps are in how the target language maps onto the others, and looking for systematicity in the way certain elements interact is the way I learn. It helps me get things into my head. I also really like studying grammar tables and rules. I’m just a really cognitive and analytical language learner.

And of course, I’m not talking wholesale and exclusive use of the grammar-translation method and nothing else. In my own language learning, I combine the grammar study with speaking practice both formal and informal, and a lot of informal listening practice.

I’m currently learning Portuguese, and for lack of any formal face-to-face course available for me to take, I have been using Duolingo for practice. It’s great for learning and reviewing a lot of vocabulary and common phrases. It’s good for the basics of grammatical structures too, but if there’s anything I want a detailed explanation for, I have to  seek it out on the web or in a traditional grammar or dictionary, as the crowd-sourced “explanations” of “rules” within Duolingo are a total shitshow (for lack of a better word). Your typical everyday person just doesn’t know enough about language to give good explanations—give me a sage on the stage, any time! (Duolingo’s estimate of fluency feature is also utterly ridiculous, and judging on the number of baffled comments on the discussions forums, I’m not the only one who thinks so.)

That’s why I find simplistic comparisons of popular language-learning programs/apps/software quite unhelpful. This one, for example, comparing Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, is  trying really hard to set up a binary along the lines of “Duolingo is good for X, while Rosetta Stone is better for Y”: Duolingo Teaches You Faster, Rosetta Stone Teaches You Deeper; Duolingo Is Best for Beginners […], Rosetta Stone Is Best for Committed Learners.  It’s just not true. Rosetta Stone’s immersion-style “we’re going to show you a whole bunch of language and you can just use inductively figure out all the basic rules and patterns” thing works for some, but it drives me CRAZY. It’s too slow. Just tell me how the basic structures work already, so I can get on with practising things! But while I enjoying translating sometimes nonsensical sentences between my target language and English, some people prefer Rosetta-style “immersion”.

As a language teacher, all this drives home the conviction that no one methodology is perfect, and there’s a place for translation-based approaches in the language classroom (though these are obviously more easily carried out in contexts where all the students share the same L1 and the teacher is also fluent in that language). It’s also a reminder to respect the variety that can exist within a group as to people’s preferences in learning styles—and maybe take it easy on the induction and discovery tasks sometimes and just present certain information and get on with it. Especially with aspects of language that are quite straightforward and rule-governed.

(Graphic is from here.)